D. A. Carson opens his book on suffering, writing, “A pastor is cutting his front lawn. He looks up from his task just in time to see a heavy dump truck back out of his neighbor’s driveway—right over the neighbor’s eighteen-month-old son, who had been squatting behind the huge tires. The pastor accompanies the hysterical mother and ashen father to the hospital in the ambulance. There is no hope for the little boy.”1
It’s gut-wrenching, isn’t it? As I sat at my computer and wrote those words, I felt sick to my stomach. My heart felt tight. I contemplated erasing it and starting over, going a different route with my introduction. But I decided to keep it in—obviously. And the reason I wanted to begin this sermon with that opening paragraph from Carson is because I remember what I thought after I read it for the first time twenty years ago. I thought, “This is a book that I can give to people who have faced real suffering and are struggling to reconcile God’s sovereignty and goodness with their pain.”
You know what kind of book on suffering you can’t hand to people who have walked (or are walking) through great pain? You can’t hand them a book that merely discusses suffering in an academic way or one that wants to skim right over real tragedy and pain, staying on a superficial level. The kind of book that wants to pretend like the painful, heart-wrenching, faith-testing questions and lament aren’t there in your heart just isn’t that helpful. Carson’s book, I knew from the opening paragraph, would be different. He wasn’t going to skirt the weight of suffering. He wasn’t going to try to stay on the surface and hope his readers wouldn’t pause long enough to realize he wasn’t dealing with reality. I appreciate that. We need that.
I feel much the same way when I read Romans 9:14-29. Paul could’ve decided that he wanted to keep things superficial. I mean, to this point, he’s made his believing readers feel loved by God and secure in that love. He’s reminded them that they, like Jacob, were made objects of God’s love before we even existed so that nothing can stop him from accomplishing his purpose for us. He could’ve kept it there. No need to dive into difficult waters and risk unsettling his readers. But Paul knows that there could be an objection that rises up within our hearts, a question or challenge that just keeps picking at this glorious truth he has laid out. And that challenge would be, “But, Paul, if what you’re saying is true, then that’s unfair of God. He’s not acting just.”
And Paul knows that challenge is there, and Paul does not duck hard questions. So, he brings it up himself. He brings it up as if someone is asking him really difficult questions at every points. He does it at the beginning of our text, asking, “Is there injustice on God’s part?” (v. 14), and he does it again in the middle of our text, asking another difficult question in v. 19. But again, there isn’t a real dialogue partner. No one is pressing him by asking these questions. He’s simply bringing up the nagging, difficult questions himself because he knows they’re there, and Paul doesn’t want us to rest in all that he’s told us in some superficial way. He wants us to rest secure, knowing that he’s brought up the strongest objections himself and taken them head on. But in taking these challenges head on, he doesn’t lose sight of his argument about God’s word to Israel not failing. He stays on task.
So, let me lay out for us the points I think Paul is showing us from the text (because I think they can feel a bit disjointed), and then we’ll look at them one by one. Here, I think is an outline of Paul’s argument from Romans 9:14-29:
1. God is just to choose individuals to belong to him.
2. God has chosen Jews and Gentiles to belong to him.
3. God is just to choose Jews and Gentiles to belong to him.
Let’s start, then, with the first part of Paul’s argument, namely,
God is just to choose individuals to belong to him.
Paul has just written that before they had been born or before either had done anything good or bad, God said that Esau would serve Jacob and then quoted Malachi 1, where God had said, “Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated.” And though we began exploring two weeks ago why precisely God worked in that way, the question may well have arisen, “But is that fair or just? Is it just of God to decide this one will be my child and that one won’t, prior to and not dependent on what those individuals do?” Therefore, Paul, as I’ve noted, raises the question himself, saying in verse 14, “What shall we say then? Is there injustice on God’s part?” And he quickly answers, “By no means!” as we’ve seen elsewhere, but what he does in verses 15-23 is give us a longer explanation for why God is not unjust in choosing which individuals belong to him, as he did with Isaac (and not Ishmael) or Jacob (and not Esau).
But before we consider how Paul answers this question, we need to understand the bit of oddity a question like this poses for us. You may remember earlier when we were looking at Romans 3:5, Paul asked if God “is unrighteous to inflict wrath on us?” and he added a parenthetical statement, saying, “I speak in a human way.” And I noted that I believe the reason Paul did that is because in one sense it is nonsensical to ask if God is unrighteous in anything he does because righteousness itself is defined in relation to God’s character. Something is righteous if it is in accord with God’s character, and something is unrighteous if it is not in accord with God’s character. God himself is the ground for moral order in our world. So, to ask if God is unrighteous is doing something is, thus, nonsensical, like asking, “Does that square have four corners?” By definition a square has four corners, and by definition God is righteous.
And Paul acknowledges this in Romans 3:5 when he says, “I speak in a human way,” and yet goes on to answer the question. Well, the same reality exists when we come to Romans 9:14. Paul again asks a question about God being just, and he goes on to answer it, but I want you to know how Paul is and isn’t going to answer this question. He doesn’t answer this question by appealing to some standard of justice that exists outside of God that God bows to and tries to measure up to in his actions. To answer as if that were the case would be to deny God as the standard of justice and elevate something above God. Rather, then, what Paul does is he answers this question by showing that God’s actions in electing certain individuals to belong to him line up with what God has revealed about himself in the Scripture (vv. 15-18) and with his character as Creator and Lord (vv. 20-23)2. And his answer is that indeed God does measure up to the standard of what he has revealed about himself and who he is as Creator and Lord.
First, then, Paul shows that God is just because his electing work is in accord with the standard that God has revealed about himself and his actions in Scripture. Paul writes, “For he says to Moses, ‘I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.’ So then it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God, who has mercy” (vv. 15-16).
This is a quotation from Exodus 33:19, and you may well remember the context. Moses has come down to find Israel worshiping the golden calf, God had said he would no longer go with Israel into the Promised Land, and Moses had interceded until God indeed said he would go with them. But it’s as if Moses needed something more to sustain him as he led this obstinate people, whom he had just witnessed sinning in this grievous manner, so he asked God to show him his glory. And it is at that moment that the Lord said, I will make all my goodness pass before you and will proclaim before you my name, ‘The LORD,” and then he added, “And I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show mercy on whom I show mercy.”
In other words, this quotation comes from God in the very context of the Lord showing Moses who he is in his nature. And he tells Moses that by nature he is one who is absolutely free and sovereign, being indebted and constrained by no one and nothing. He is gracious to whomever he wills to be gracious, and he has mercy on whom he has mercy. Thus, God is indeed acting in accord with what he has revealed about himself in Scripture to bestow his love on one individual and not another, not making it dependent on man’s will or work but simply on his sovereign will.
But Exodus 33:19 isn’t an isolated incident, and nor is God free only to bestow grace and mercy. Paul continues, drawing from Exodus 9:16, as he adds, “For the Scripture says to Pharaoh, ‘For this very purpose I have raised you up, that I might show my power in you, and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth.’ So then he has mercy on whomever he wills, and he hardens whomever he wills” (vv. 17-18).
This quotation happens in the context of the plagues in Egypt. God had already carried out six plagues upon Pharaoh and the Egyptians, and then, in the midst of that the Lord tells Pharaoh, “For by now I could have put out my hand and struck you and your people with pestilence, and you would have been cut off from the earth [i.e. died]. But for this purpose I have raised you up, to show you my power, so that my name may be proclaimed in all the earth” (Exod 9:15-16).
In other words, God could have simply killed Pharaoh, but that wouldn’t have accomplished his purpose. Instead, he hardened him in his sin so that God might continue to display his power in the plagues and reveal his glory and greatness in them. Every time Pharaoh was obstinate it paved the way for God to unleash another plague and reveal his greatness and glory more. Therefore, Paul concludes that God exercises absolute freedom in showing mercy to whom he wills and hardening whom he will. There simply can be no charge that God is acting out of step with who he has revealed himself to be in the Scriptures.
But Paul still envisions push back, so he once more raises the challenge himself, saying in verse 19, “You will say to me then, ‘Why does he still find fault? For who can resist his will?’” And I want to say a few things about this question before diving into Paul’s answer. First, let me explain the question itself. If God is acting in his sovereign freedom to harden the heart of an individual like Pharaoh so that he continues in his sin and resistance to God in order that God might display his power and glory against Pharaoh, and if this is indicative of how God can and does work, then how could God find fault with his creatures who simply are carrying out their sinful actions as he withholds mercy from them? That’s the question. Second, I also want to note that I think the question is being posed by Paul (on behalf of his opponents) in a high-handed way in which they’re saying, “How dare you, God!” or “God, you cannot do this!” That is, this isn’t a genuine inquiry from one who is bowing the knee before the Lord.
If one were to ask in a humble, believing way, submitting to God’s lordship, how man can be responsible for his evil actions when God exercises absolute sovereignty in the world, then I think there are indeed some good answers to that question which I’ve tried to highlight in classes taught at the church over the years.3
But Paul is not dealing with a humble inquirer. Consequently, Paul’s answer reflects the kind of answer given to one shaking his fist at God. And his answer is: “But who are you, O man, to answer back to God? Will what is molded say to its molder, ‘Why have you made me like this?’ Has the potter no right over the clay, to make out of the same lump one vessel for honorable use and another for dishonorable use? What if God, desiring to show his wrath and to make known his power, has endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction, in order to make known the riches of his glory for vessels of mercy, which he has prepared beforehand for glory?” (vv. 20-23).
In other words, Paul’s answer is that because God is Creator and Lord, he has the absolute sovereign right to mold his creatures just as a potter has the right to mold a pot how he wants. If he wants to make one and show mercy while withholding that same mercy to another but giving him over to his sin, he has every right to do so. He is God. What if, Paul suggests, God wanted to deal with others as he did Pharaoh? Remember, with Pharaoh, God could have killed him, but instead he “endured with patience” Pharaoh’s rebellion, hardening him, so that he might show his glory to the world. Again, Paul suggest that God may well be doing that with others to show his glory to his children whom he has shown mercy—a mercy that is intensified when we realize the divine wrath that we deserved.
So, Paul’s answer isn’t to raise these questions only to back off of God’s absolute sovereignty in electing and calling certain individuals to himself and not others. Paul doesn’t say, “Oh no, you’ve got me all wrong.” His answer is to say that God is just to elect individuals, showing them mercy while withholding it from others, because this is absolutely in line with what he has revealed about himself and his nature in the OT and what is true of him as Creator and Lord. And we should be humbled and bow before this God, not forgetting that his mercy he has shown us came at the expense of sending his Son to die a hideous death on a cross before being raised on that Easter Sunday morning.
Paul, then, first wants us to see that God is indeed acting in accord with his just character as he freely and mercifully chooses individuals to belong to him. Second, he wants us to see that,
God has chosen Jews and Gentiles to belong to him.
That is, if you’re asking, “To whom then does God choose to show his saving mercy?” the answer is that he shows his saving mercy to both Jews and Gentiles. Paul identifies these “vessels of mercy” in verse 24 as he writes, “Even us whom he has called, not from the Jews only but also from the Gentiles.” And this is an important point for Paul to make because, as I mentioned a couple weeks ago, when he begins Romans 9, he focuses his discussion in verses 1-13 exclusively on Israelites. He began the chapter asking if God’s word and promises to Israel have failed since there are relatively few believing Israelites, despite God’s promises of salvation. And he notes that the reason God’s word hasn’t failed is because God’s promises were—from the beginning—directed to a group within Israel, not every individual Israelite. We might say that the recipients of God’s promises were a true Israel within Israel, a children of the promise from within all the physical descendants of Abraham.
But that could leave one to believe, then, that the children of the promise are only a select group of Israelites (though you’d have to ignore the first eight chapters of Romans to think this). Thus, Paul brings it all together, noting in verse 24 that those whom God has called, his children, are not from the Jews only but also from the Gentiles. God’s one, true people includes both Jews and Gentiles.
This is straightforward, but worth drawing attention to. Also, it’s helpful to note because Paul’s last point is simply a combination of these two points we’ve already seen. Thus far Paul has shown that God is acting in accord with his just character, as revealed in Scripture, as he chooses individuals to belong to him, and he has argued that this chosen group of individuals includes both Jews and Gentiles. Finally, then, in verses 25-29 Paul shows that:
God is just to choose Jews and Gentiles to belong to him.
Now, we might not feel the need for Paul to make this point when we first think about it. But with a little contemplation of the topic, it makes sense. From Romans 1:1-9:24, Paul has argued that God has sovereignly chosen to set his affection on and call to himself Jews and Gentiles. And at this point in history, that has meant a lot of Gentiles compared to a smaller number of Jews. If God is calling individuals to himself, then does this great gathering of Gentiles and smaller number of Israelites really accord with what God has revealed of himself and his plan in the OT? I mean, most likely the prevailing idea among Jews was quite likely that they were included among God’s saved people simply because they were Jews while the prevailing idea among Gentiles could be that they were excluded from God’s saved people simply because they’re Gentiles. Paul argues against both, showing that God is indeed acting in accord with OT revelation, as we see in vv. 25-29.
First, Paul shows that God prophesied that he would have Gentile children by quoting Hosea 2:23 and 1:10. He writes, “As indeed he says in Hosea, ‘Those who were not my people I will call ‘my people,’ and her who was not beloved I will call ‘beloved.’ “And in the very place where it was said to them, ‘You are not my people,’ there they will be called ‘sons of the living God’” (vv. 25-26).
Now, if you read these words in Hosea, you might say that Paul is misusing these verses. After all, they come in the context of God speaking to the northern tribes of Israel, telling them that he will redeem them after this time of their sin. But Paul says this supports the idea of God saving Gentiles. How?
Well, there are at least two ways Paul could say this. The first is simply to say that here were a people who, for all intents and purposes, had been made not God’s people, and if God is saying that he’ll make people who are not his people, his people, then clearly that’s pointing us in the direction of God saving Gentiles. The other thing Paul may well be noting is the prophets continued use of “call.” God will call a people not his people, “my people,” and “beloved,” and “sons of the living God.” And this is what Paul has been arguing, namely, that people aren’t God’s children by virtue of physical descent but by virtue of the call of God. If God makes someone his child by his call and he can do that among a people whom he has labeled “not by people” simply by calling them “my people,” then obviously he can do that with Gentiles, even though they have no physical descent from Abraham.
Finally, Paul also shows that a smaller number of Israelites being saved is also in accord with what God spoke. He writes, “And Isaiah cries out concerning Israel: ‘Though the number of the sons of Israel be as the sand of the sea, only a remnant of them will be saved, for the Lord will carry out his sentence upon the earth fully and without delay.’ And as Isaiah predicted, ‘If the Lord of hosts had not left us offspring, we would have been like Sodom and become like Gomorrah’” (vv. 27-29).
As God saw Israel repeatedly rebel, he could have simply wiped them off the face of the earth, like he did Sodom. But instead, he left a remnant whom he has saved from each generation. Thus, what is happening now, with a remnant of Israelites being saved, is not only within the parameters of what God spoke in the OT, it is the fulfillment of what God spoke in the OT. However, this also provides hope, for preserving of a remnant throughout the generations, points us to the possibility of God saving many among Israel as history continues.
But the point of all of this is that God is acting justly in all that he has done, is doing, and will do. He is acting in line with all that he has spoken in the OT. His words haven’t failed. His character hasn’t been compromised. And, therefore, we can trust him. Once more, don’t lose sight that Paul’s argument in chapters 9-11 is in support of what he has argued in Romans 1-8. Because God is just and his word has not failed, you and I should rest and delight ourselves in the secure love of the God who has graciously called us to belong to him and work all things for our good. So, this morning, I want us to come the table, once more saying to our Lord, “We will continue to follow and obey you, whatever the cost,” knowing that the God we follow is always righteous, always faithful, and always true. Amen.
You can find the previous lessons here:
Providence, part 1: http://cccjackson.org/index.php/church-resources/sortable-messages/message/god-s-providence-part-1
Also, with that foundation, here are Sunday school lessons I taught specifically on election, dealing with the doctrine in greater depth than I can this morning: